I hate things like this, I feel like a spare part. All the great and the good are milling around glad handing each, other while Caroline, my wife, talks to them about helping her charity. I've already met the local MP. Then there is Roger Dewey, the local head of Children's Services; I swear if he lays his hands on her again, I'll deck the bastard. The only reason they are here is because Caroline, is doing so well. They are hoping to claim credit. They make me sick. The problem is I also make myself sick.
Look at me; a college lecturer. I teach engineering. I've settled for semi-security and a good pension; and I hate myself for it. Before the company went broke I was the top man for control engineering. Then came the crunch, and it was a matter of move away or take a job at the college. We couldn't disrupt the children's education, so I settled for a secure salary and a pension. Ten years later the children are at university and I'm still there. Meanwhile Caroline has taken her new freedom and shown the world what she can do.
Caroline always said that I was the clever one; she always put herself down. I knew different. She was smart, but in a different way; Caroline was an organiser, a persuader of people. She trained as a nursery nurse but she was wasted doing that; I knew it even if she didn't. By the time the children left school she worked as a frustrated nursery manager, for an organisation she was perfectly capable of running. When the manager resigned I urged her to take it on. She had the ability but lacked the confidence, so I did my best to give her that confidence. I wanted her to fulfil her true potential. Because that's what you do when you love someone. She'd given her all for us, now it was her turn.
I didn't realise would take over her life leaving no room for me. OK, I admit I'm jealous. I'm jealous of her job, not jealous because it's better than mine, but jealous because it gets all her time and attention leaving nothing for me. I don't resent her success, I'm proud of her, proud of what she has achieved. It's just that it's ruined the plan. When the children left it was supposed to be our time. Time to do things together, see the world. Now the plan's gone to hell and I hardly see her. That's the reason I'm here. If I don't show up to these events I never get to spend time with her. Who knows if it goes well, we might even share a small moment of intimacy when we get home.
We take our seats for the presentation ceremony. Caroline waves as she makes her way up to the stage. I move to the far side of the room and can just see her take her seat in the wings, next to that lecherous bastard from Children's Services. I watch Caroline going through her speech. Until recently she would have asked for my help, but I have no idea what's in this speech.
A local radio celebrity steps up to the podium and outlines the agenda for the evening and the room becomes quiet. Caroline is up for two awards one for her organisation and one individual.
I sit through the first part waiting for the Non-Government Organisations awards. We've known for months Caroline's project had won this award she was even asked who she wanted to present it. Like a fool I'd suggested the head of Children's Services. 'Doesn't hurt to get these people on side, ' I'd told her. That was before I found out what a letch he was.
'Now we come to the organisation that has made the most progress in childcare, ' said our master of ceremonies. 'Presenting this award is the head of Children's Services for Welfordshire, Mr Roger Dewey.'
People applaud, but not me. This bloke is an arsehole of the first order. I've seen him groping any woman he can get close to. He's only been in the job six months and already he's got a reputation. He's talking to us all about how the organisation rose from the ashes. You'd think he was there, but that was two years ago, and the council he represents were part of the original problem. Someone has briefed him well though. He tells us all who the winner is and Caroline steps forward to receive her award.
He walks back to his seat and I wait for the speech. Normally I'm as familiar with the speech as she is. I'm her trial audience, her advisor; cut that; expand on this, but this time I have no idea what she will say. She looks back at Dewey and he nods to her. Almost immediately I sense something is wrong. She's talking politics, telling us of the problems caused by the government's funding cuts.
'Keep politics out of it, ' I always said. 'The people you slag off today might be in power tomorrow.'
I glance around the room and see uncomfortable looking faces. Now she's thanking people, the trustees, the nursery managers, the case workers. She looks back at him again.
'Last but by no means least, I'd like to thank Mr Roger Dewey without his help and support we would never have made it this far.'
'What help and support' I'm asking myself?
This award was sewn up before he even took the job. Why is she thanking him, without even a passing mention of me? I was the one who helped her deal with a hostile committee who wanted to close the project down. She sits down, and he puts his hand on her back. He moves his hand across her bare shoulders then lower down her back. This is not a congratulatory pat on the back from a colleague; it's the caress of a husband or ... lover.
Suddenly everything is clear. The late night meetings, the weekend conferences and the fundraising trips to London, all explained in an instant. I get out of my seat. She is making no attempt to stop Dewey running his hand over her back. Not until our eyes meet. I have no idea what expression I'm wearing, but it can't be pretty. Her mouth falls open, and she gasps, before shaking herself and talking to Dewey who quickly pulls his hand back. I make my way to the aisle, then I'm free and walking out of the room.
Once outside I throw up in the litter bin outside the door then lean against the wall, I gasp in the cold night air and consider my position. It can't be true, not my Caroline, but I know that it is. I've not been teaching for ten years without learning something about body language. Dewey's hands were telling me 'She's mine, this is my woman.' Greedy bastard has another one at home looking after the kids.
What do I do now? Do I go back in there and pretend nothing has happened? Can I do that? Can I look at my Caroline without seeing that slimy bastard with his hands all over her? What about him? Can I resist smashing his face in as soon as he comes near me? No, going back inside is out of the question. I've got some serious thinking to do and I can't do it here. Where is my car? Finding my car keys, I press the unlock button and the 'chirp chirp' attracts my attention and I turn to see the lights flash.
Sitting in my car I feel better, insulated from the problems outside. I start the engine. Home, that's where I need to be, I can think there. Caroline has another award to come so she'll be tied up here for another hour or so. I'm on the road before the arguments in my head start.
'What are you doing?' asks the voice. 'You can't be sure there's anything going on. It's not as if you caught them at it?'
'He knows what he saw; that's all he needs to know. It was obvious.'
'But there might be a reasonable explanation.'
'Yes, he's fucking her what further explanation do you need'
All this is going on as I'm driving down the hill toward the bridge. I reach the crossroads; two cars are coming towards me. The first car slows to turn left and the second car pulls out to pass. There is not enough space and I react too slowly. The car tries to pull back in but I hit the back end knocking me sideways. The impact sets off the airbags and I can see nothing. There is another impact and everything goes black.
Blue lights are flashing outside, I reach for the door and a searing pain shoots though me. I can't move; it's like I'm pinned to the seat. The door is pulled open and a stocky man in green overalls stands before me.
'Hello mate. My name's George, I'm a paramedic. What do I call you?'
'John, John Fletcher'
'OK John what have we got here?'
He got out a torch and looked around, opened the rear door and looked around again.
'John mate, I'm not going to lie to you, we're in serious trouble here. I want you to stay quite still. There is a tube, part of the bridge; it's come through the car, through you and the seat. I'm going to have to call out the Fire and Rescue service to get you out.'
George leaves me, and I wonder how things could get any worse. In a few minutes he's back. He sits talking to me while we wait. More blue lights as the Fire and Rescue arrives. George goes to talk to them and then comes back to me.
'Well John, I hope you're not too attached to this car, because they're going to have to cut you out of here. It's a piece of metal right, not important? We're going to get you out of here, but the car has got to go.'
I nodded, and George started to move out of the way
'George, are my legs alright?'
'Yeah mate, they look fine.'
'It's just that I can't feel anything down there.'
He's trying to disguise it but his cheerful expression changes. I'm in serious trouble.
They are cutting the car apart first the doors, then the roof. The floodlights mean that I can see the galvanised tube sticking out of my abdomen. George fills me with morphine and they cut through the tube.
The lights are so bright and I'm surrounded by people. One man seems to be in charge and he's giving orders to the others, someone is talking to me but I can't understand what they are saying. They inject something into the back of my hand and everything fades to black again.
I wake in a brightly lit room. My throat is as dry as the bottom of a bird cage. She is here in the room, still wearing the dress she wore for the presentation. She has her back to me. The same back that Dewey was stroking last night. I'm lying on my side, propped up by pillows. I search for water without success.
'Water' I croak
She turns on hearing my voice and rushes too the bed.
'Thank God you're alright; I've been so worried about you.'
She presses the call button to summon the nurse.
'What happened to you? What were you doing?'
The nurse bustles into the room and Caroline makes room for her
'How are you Mr Fletcher?'
'Thirsty, very thirsty.'
'I can't give you any water yet; it will make you sick. Here suck on this; it will make you feel better.'
She puts a small ice cube into my mouth. It's too cold but so soothing.
'Try not to talk too much. I'll tell the doctor you are awake and he'll be in to talk to you soon.'
Caroline comes back. Her eyes are red; she's been crying. There are tears running down her cheeks now. She takes my hand and squeezes it.
'When the presentation was over I looked for you but couldn't find you anywhere. When I found the car missing, I had to get a taxi home.'
'You mean Dewey didn't give you a lift, ' I think. I would say it but it's hard to talk with an ice cube in your mouth. I pulled the ice cube out for a moment.
'Why are you here Caroline?'
'What do you mean, why am I here? The hospital rang and told me my husband was seriously injured, I came straight here. What else was I meant to do?'
'Call Dewey and tell him the bedroom is available.' It would be cruel to give voice to my thoughts, and I find it difficult to be cruel to her.
'Go home Caroline; get some sleep. It looks like you need it and I certainly do.' 'Anyway you heard the nurse, I mustn't talk much.' I put the ice cube back in and sucked on it.
'Maybe I'll wait, and talk to the doctor'
'I'm not a child Caroline. The doctor can say all he needs to say to me; after all, I am the patient. --Just go home and get some rest. If you really want to do something for me, you can call Bob at the college. Tell him what happened, and I won't be working for while.'
'What's wrong John? Why are you being like this?'
'I don't know; maybe it's got something to do with being run through with a steel tube.'
'Perhaps you're right; I should go home and come back later when you are feeling better.'
She gets up picks up her coat then bends to kiss my cheek.
'I'll be back later, ' she says as she puts her coat on.
She reaches the door and turns back to face me.
'I love you, ' she says, and a tear run down her cheek.
The doctor is a cheerful sort. He's arranged for me to have something to drink and he's viewing my scans on his tablet computer.
'You're a lucky man Mr Fletcher. The tube missed all the vital organs. How do you feel?'
'Like a survivor of the Zulu wars. I'm expecting Michael Caine to come in any minute with a progress report.'
'What? Oh yes the film, I caught it on Netflix a while back. Good to see you've kept your sense of humour. As I say you've been very lucky just a two broken ribs that we've wired back in place. No lasting damage.'
'So why don't my legs work?'
His expression changes. His smile is gone and now he looks concerned. Uncovering my legs he goes through a routine of tests. He pulls a pin from the collar of his scrubs.
'Yell when you feel something, ' he says.
I'm not watching what he's doing but I can guess.
'Pull your toes down for me.'
I tell my toes to move but when I look down everything stays still.
'Now up, ' he says
Once more my brain sends out the command but nothing happens.
He covers my legs again and makes some notes on his tablet.
'OK, it looks like we've got some nerve damage. Now, I don't want you to panic, it's probably temporary. When the tube broke your ribs, it also displaced your spine a little. We know none of the nerves were severed but they might be deadened, or it could be some swelling in the spine putting pressure on the nerves. We'll leave it for a few days and do more tests.'
'Not so lucky after all doc'
'You're still alive Mr Fletcher. Given the circumstances, I'd say that was lucky.'
He leaves me and I fall asleep. The nurses come in and make their observations and I go back to sleep.
It's evening now. The nurses move me into a sitting position and fill me with morphine. At 6:30 pm, she walks into my room. She looks less tired but her eyes are still red. She smiles as she walks over to the bed and kisses me on the lips.
'You're looking better; what did the doctor say?'
'He told me I'm a lucky man. A week ago I would have agreed with him.'
'You are lucky we both are. You survived and we still have each other.'
'Do we Caroline? Do we still have each other? This is the first time in months that I've seen you before 9:00 pm.'
She looks down at the floor and I wait for her to make a clean breast of it. She decides against it and gives me a wan smile.
'You're right, I've been neglecting us, but that's all going to change. It's time I got my priorities right. I'm going to delegate more. They owe me some leave, so when I get you home I'll take a few weeks off and take care of you.'
'I'm not coming home, I'm not sure where I'm going yet, but I'm not coming home.'
'Don't be silly, of course you're coming home. Who will take care of you? You're not just going to get up and walk out of here.'
For a second I wonder if she's found out about my legs, but then I realise that even the nurses won't be told until there is a diagnosis. No she's expecting me to be discharged in the next ten days and my ribs won't let me do much.
'I'm aware of that. In fact I doubt that I'll be out of here for a few weeks, but when they do discharge me, I won't be coming home. You see I know what's been going on between you and Dewey.'
Her face is starting to redden, and she looks off to her left before bringing her eyes back to look at me again.
'There is nothing going on between us. Who would tell you such a thing.'
'He did, Dewey."This is my woman," he said. Just before I left; he said it to me and anyone else who was interested.'
'What are you talking about he hardly said a word to you last night, and I don't blame him. I thought you were being quite rude.'
'Not as rude as I would have been if I'd known. At that point I only knew of his reputation of being a lecherous womaniser. Oh no, it was when you were up on the stage and he didn't need words for what he had to say. You know what happened you saw me.'
'I saw you get up looking angry, but I didn't know you were spying on me.'
'Spying? Do you think I wanted to witness you two cosy up to each other? I like to watch you, It fills my heart with pride to see you up there being the person I always knew you could be. That's how I was feeling when it all started to go wrong. When that little weasel had his hands all over your back, and you did nothing to stop him.'
I watch her undo her top button and try to cool off by flapping the front of her blouse.
'Why do they make these places so hot?' she says. It's a rhetorical question and offer no answer.
'All right he gave me a little pat on the back but that surely not worth splitting up.'
'It was more than that. I know you Caroline caressing and rubbing your back is like foreplay to you. The disturbing thing is that he knows you well enough to do the same things I would.'
The tears start to form; it gives me no pleasure. She's dabbing at her eyes with a tissue and trying to control her breathing; she wants to say something so I wait.
'I was going to tell you last night when we got home. When I found out what happened I decided to wait until you were back on your feet and more able to handle it. I'm so sorry John, I didn't mean it to happen really I didn't. I was under such pressure and I buckled.'
'Are you saying he pressured you?'
'Well yes, I mean no, sort of. I mean at first yes. Does it matter? It's over; I told him last night, never to lay his hands on me again. It was short, and not very sweet. I made the biggest mistake of my life, now I'm pleading with you John, please let me try to repair the damage. We can get past this I know we can.'
'I wish I had your confidence Caroline but the fact is, I don't. I lost my self respect a long time ago but finding out that I've lost your respect, did things to me. You are not the only one who made sacrifices for our family; I sacrificed a good career because we couldn't disrupt the children's education by moving to another part of the country. When they left for university you started your career again and we stayed because I wanted you to see how good you are. I can make logical decisions, help with the plans, but I could never handle those people the way you do. You are so damned good at the whole management thing, I had to give you the chance to spread your wings and fly. Now you have that confidence; now you can do it on your own. Where does that leave me? For ten years I've been teaching kids who aren't interested, subjects far below the level I used to function at. It drove me crazy. As the years went by and they made the job more quantifiable and political I just hated it more. The only reason I stuck it out was because it was for us, you and me. Now I find there is no us, what am I going to do?'
'No one that heard me speak last night would think I'd lost respect for you.'
'You mean the speech where you said that you owe everything to Dewey?'
'No I mean the second one where I told everyone how I owed everything to my wonderful, supportive, unselfish husband. People were calling for you to stand up but you weren't there. I had to tell them you were very shy. If you want to move away to find a better job, we can do that. I'll give up my job and look for something else wherever we end up. Please John let me try to make it right.'
'And how will you quitting your job make anything right? It will just be another thing for me to feel guilty about. It's alright, I'm not blaming you, I'm not the man you married. The man you married would never settle for the security of having a wage. He would have found a way of working around the problem even if that meant setting up his own consultancy. He wouldn't have ended up like me. I don't blame you, I don't respect me either.'
'But I do love you and I do respect you. All the things you think of as negatives I see as positives. Yes you've changed, but you had a family to support. I wanted you to take the job at the college. I wanted a regular income. I wanted to be sure we could pay the mortgage at the end of the month. I'm sorry I never realised how much you hated the job. If you want to quit, that's fine by me. I can support us. Please John can't we leave all of this until I've got you back home. Give us some time it will all seem clearer then.'
She doesn't see that she is just digging herself deeper into a hole. There is an uneasy silence as Caroline continues to dab at her eyes with a tissue. It is me that breaks the silence.
'I have to get back my self respect, be the man I know I can be, just like you. I need to do that. I can't kid myself anymore. What I thought I had; the reason I used to accept the situation, is gone.'
'We can do that together. I can help you, like you helped me. I really will be the best wife.'
'You already have been, for more than twenty years. A better wife than I had a right to ask for, but that is over. You can't be part of the solution because you are part of the problem'
Now comes what I expect to be the final salvo.
'What am I going to tell the children?'
'Whatever you like. Tell them we grew apart, or I couldn't live with your work commitments. You could even tell them the truth. I'll go along with whatever you say as long as you don't make me the bad guy.'
That's it, it's over, there are no more arguments to bring up but she hits me with something I hadn't expected.
'What about Roger, does he get off scot free? He's ruined our lives, and he walks away without a scratch.'
'It takes two to tango Caroline.'
'I know that, but it was him that did all the chasing. I deserve what is happening, but you've done nothing to deserve this. You're sitting there acting calm, but I know this is breaking your heart. I hate myself for what I've done, but he doesn't care.'
So she's spoken to him today, well what did she expect; that he'd be grief stricken? I bet he tried to talk her into letting him come around tonight. That would explain why she is so disgusted.
'I don't know why I am so calm, maybe it's all the opiates they are pumping into me. You shouldn't worry about Dewey, he'll get his. By the end of tomorrow the inquiry will have started and once it does there will be several women ready to jump in with their allegations. Maureen from the college crèche is one of them. I tried to tell you about her two weeks ago but you were too tired sit and talk.'
Now she's sobbing her heart out, and all I can do is sit and watch. I'm torn between wanting to comfort her and thinking she deserves it.
'Dewey asked her out to dinner to discuss her funding needs. He got annoyed when she wanted to bring her husband.'
She realises what a fool she's been and what a worthless piece of shit Dewey is. She gets up and runs out of the room with tears streaming down her face. I sit and wait I know she will come back. It isn't over until she has won, or so she thinks.
She's back, the tear streaks are washed away as is all of her make up. Her eyes are still red and she looks ready to cry again at any moment.
'So you are going to report him. You know that it will reflect on me.'
'You'll be alright. Your committee won't want to lose you. I should know I found half of them for you. They know a good thing when they see it; the worst you'll get is a written warning. Dewey is a different matter. Seducing women whose organisations are dependant on him for funding? I think the council will take a very dim view of that. Cheapskate that he is, he probably did it all on expenses. When I give them the dates of the weekend conferences and the fundraising trips to London, I'm sure they'll look into it. If I'm right, that's fraud, he might go to gaol. I hope you were worth it.'
She's sits beside the bed, unable to control her crying.
'You could try to dig him out by denying everything.'
She's holding one hand out towards me shaking her head as she continues to cry. I'm calm unaffected by her outpouring of grief. She's grieving for what she must know has just died.
I wait for her to stop crying and eventually she does. She dries her eyes and tries to compose herself.
'So what happens now? If you're not coming home where will you go?'
'I'll stay here until I can cope on my own, then I'll find somewhere to live. I'll let you know where to find me; if you decide to sell the house you can send me my half'
'No I mean us, what happens to us?'
'Well the doctor reckons that clean breaks heal faster so perhaps you'd better leave now and not come back.'
'But I love you.'
'Then set me free'
Her head goes down and she swallows. For the first time in our life together she's given up; accepted defeat. She gets up, comes to the bed and kisses my cheek then turns and walks to the door. She wipes away a tear gives me a wave, and then she's gone.
It's not over, not yet, not for her. She'll be back to try again. The boys will be in to see me, and they'll put pressure on me to go home; to give her another chance. Who knows if they keep it up long enough they may even find out about the paralysis. It will make no difference. It's like a switch has flicked in my brain. For the first time I am top of my priority list. I don't need anyone's pity. With what is in my head I don't need legs. The college won't move my lab to the ground floor or a building with a lift. I can probably do a deal on severance. With severance and insurance payments I'll have some time to bring my skills up to date. Perhaps the doctor is right. I am a lucky man. Lucky to be alive, lucky to have found out when I've still got time to start again. I'm lucky to have the cash to tide me over until I get back up the ladder. Why then, do I feel so empty inside?